Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Karma of Power

I was set to thinking about ways of empowering wisdom and empathy in daily life while recently attending a “performance” by Tibetan monks from Drepung Monastery’s Loseling College. Like many such events, it was held in a public auditorium before an audience of Buddhists and other interested community members.

The monks were likely asked many times previously about the propriety of presenting sacred acts as performances in public venues. So, their spokesperson (a monk himself) addressed the matter head-on in his introduction to the evening:

“Some people have wondered whether it is appropriate to offer these religious practices outside of the monastery and temple. Well, we Tibetans follow a form of Buddhism in which any place or situation can be utilized to practice it.“

The monk knew that with the proper outlook and motivation even a staged performance of shortened Buddhist rituals can appropriately engage the mind and energy of the audience to disseminate blessings and mental wakefulness. This understanding is fully in keeping with the methodology of the tantric path to enlightenment, a special focus of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tantric practices are meant to utilize the reality at hand to create enlightened conditions, where any venue can be transformed into glorious Buddha fields. To accomplish this requires working with whatever is available - from beauty to ugliness - through disciplined activity. The goal is to transform ignorance, aggression and selfishness into purest heart and mind, which is the illumined state of Buddha Nature.

The Power of Numbers

Fortunately, the path is helped along through an easily remembered alphanumerical scheme. Tibetans hold a deep appreciation for the spiritual power of numbers. In Buddhism there are the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. There are the Three Precious Jewels, the Five Buddha Families, the Six Perfections and the Twenty One Taras. The list is almost endless, but most useful for reminding the practitioner of the precepts of enlightenment.

I am reminded in this context of another alphanumerical grouping from Tibetan spiritual philosophy, called the Four Enlightened Karmic Actions. The Four Enlightened Karmic Actions are fundamental to Buddhist tantra (the Vajrayana or “Diamond Thunderbolt Way”). They empower tantric practice into a powerful, homeopathic, alchemical medicine meant to work with the elemental qualities of life and mind to cure humanity’s root affliction of primordial ignorance.

The Four Enlightened Karmic Actions are energetic strategies that are particularly applicable to this day and age as antidotes to our present sufferings. In order to fully understand them, however, we first need to take a short detour into the Tibetan realm of the mandala.

Entering the Mandala

The Four Enlightened Karmic Actions or “Four Karmas” are directly related to the fourfold architectural plan of the mandala. Mandalas may take the form of two dimensional paintings, three dimensional sculptures, or something in between when made from colored sand particles. But they are all artistic visualizations of the ideal state of psychophysical unity. To this end, the mandala is designed in the form of a rainbow-lit, palacial temple of an enlightened being such as a buddha or bodhisattva.

Mandalas are by design, ecospiritual maps of both our unperfected, ordinary reality and the potentially perfected state of being outside and within.

The usual design of a mandala consists of a fourfold equilateral cross resolving into a central focal point. This is known as a quincunx in Western philosophy. The quincunx encapsulates the four quadrants of inner and outer reality and also their unity at its intersection, which is usually shown as a small circular field. The quincunx is surrounded, in turn, by a larger circle, which indicates the interconnected totality of these 4 directions and the meanings and energies that each signifies.

The mandala is in one sense a compass-like map of the outer world reality, with its eastern quadrant as the starting point of a natural, sunwise internal movement. It is also a map of our inner bodymind terrain. Each directional quadrant and the center signify one of five aspects of our “psychophysical continuum,” from our bodily existence, actions, emotions and perceptions to the consciousness, which coordinates them all.

The mandala also maps the neuroses and blockages of these five faculties of personal being. And, more importantly, it sets forth five enlightened wisdom lineages and types of energies that serve as antidotes to these factors which hinder us from becoming buddhas. Then, through concentrated effort via meditative practice, the conventional bodymind may be transformed into the idealized state of buddhahood signified by the mandala’s field of symbols.

Power into Wisdom

The Four Karmas come into play in light of these understandings to empower wisdom’s awakening. Each karmic action is connected with one of the four cardinal directional quadrants of the mandala’s quincunx, while the fifth, central direction, or quintessence, is the enlightened unity of the four.

Unlike conventional karma (ley in Tibetan), where the counterproductive effects on self, others and world usually generate unhappiness and confusion, enlightened karmic actions are karma-less; they do not generate negative karmic effects. And when they do cause effects to arise these bring positive results.

Conversely, when we all put out a thought, word or deed into the world, the results – be they immediate or protracted – tend to wind up somehow causing suffering or mayhem in their wake. Such is the nature of karma in our unenlightened human state.

A buddha’s karmic actions or “wisdom-energies,” are by definition always applied in an enlightened fashion, without creating negative karma. This is the art and the challenge to be met in each of our lifetimes on our reincarnation roads to buddhahood.

Understanding the sacred trust involved in applying the Four Enlightened Karmic Actions to our lives, let’s now explore them in detail and consider how they can meet the current challenges in our collective human condition.

Wielding Karma Wisely

Each enlightened karmic action is associated with a cardinal direction and its inherent quality. For example, the dawn is the essence of the east, a time of quietude and of peace. At dawn, the rising sun has yet to have stirred the molecules of atmosphere into active daytime weather. The dawn is a time for quiet reflection, for the dawning of one’s thoughts and plans for the day. It is a state of eternal springtime.

In the mandalic vision, east is the appropriate realm of the enlightened karmic action of pacification of bodymind, of peacemaking. The energy of pacification is particularly well applied as an antidote to a mind that is inquiet and troubled. In Vajrayana Buddhism there is a lineage of buddhas, the Eastern Buddha Family, which serve as symbols of the enlightened karmic action of pacification. Each of the four karmic actions is associated in turn with a different buddha family lineage and system of transformation.

But because the ensuing three karmic actions become increasingly more powerful, and increasingly dangerous with which to work, Buddhist teachers tend to counsel beginners to first develop the energy and karmic action of pacification.

As the cycle of the day shifts to a sun riding high in the noon sky, so too do karmic actions progress into a heightened state of energy. The southern mandala quadrant is bathed in the full power of the summertime sun and daytime of life. The solar rays spread worldwide, bestowing their golden, life-bearing energy upon all things. Similarly, the practitioner learns to wield the enriching energy of the south, as symbolized by its family of golden buddhas.

Like the pacification energy-action of the east, the enriching energy of the south is mostly beneficial. Still, just as one can burn one’s fingers on a stove where nutritious food is cooked, so too can one get singed without being properly mindful of the power of the karmic sun of enrichment.

The mandalic day progresses into the realm of sunset’s dusk and twilight. Its seasonal association lies with the autumn. Just as the sap reverses its flow back into the roots of tree or plant to counteract the chill of night and the coming winter, so too are one’s attention and life force energies reversed and one is attracted involuntarily toward a compelling object of thought and seeks to merge with it. When this quality is harnessed toward enlightened ends it is known as magnetizing karmic action.

The buddhas embodying magnetizing energy and action are envisioned as having a fiercely attractive presence. They are often flushed with a tinge of sunset red because of their ability to magnetize the attention and life energy through a state similar to the flush of lustful attraction. This works in appropriate cases when the unenlightened bodymind of the practitioner needs to be compelled, even entrapped, into identification with the enlightened state.

But occasionally the fourth karmic action-energy of the mandala is invoked. Where the depth of ignorance and extent of karmic blockage to enlightenment are particularly strong, the dark nighttime power of the wintry northern quadrant must be wielded in order to blast the practitioner out of a particularly entrenched kind of primordial ignorance.

The karmic action brought to bear here is one of “destroying energy.” Its lineage buddhas are visualized as having terrifying or wrathful demeanors, to signify this most powerful of spiritual medicines. But wielding destroying karmic action is a last resort as it is meant only for the most experienced and awakened of practitioners.

Never Ending Stories

Buddhism holds wonderful teaching stories that illustrate properly-applied karmic actions. There is nothing like a good story to bring home the fullest meaning in an easy and natural manner. Since the destroying karmic action is potentially dangerous and certainly misunderstood, Buddhism has a wonderful story showing the challenges of wielding it.

The story goes that during the previous kalpa, or macro-cycle of reality, a world-teaching Buddha was living among society. One day he was aboard a ferryboat crossing a body of water, when in his omniscience he realized that the vessel’s captain was intending to murder all onboard. So the previous Buddha took countermeasures utilizing enlightened karmic action.

He killed the boat’s captain.

At this point in the tale, the narrator asks the listeners, “and why did he do this?

The usual answers revolve around protecting the passengers; after all, the captain would otherwise perpetrate a massacre.

The Buddha saw it differently, however; to kill the captain would save the man from absolutely horrible karma in numerous, negative, future rebirths. In doing so, the Buddha took the situation’s negative karma onto his own shoulders.

The moral of the story is that wielding destroying energy requires impeccable intent, compassion and understanding. So, it is carefully used in Buddhist practice and is rarer still in daily life.

Karmas for These Times

We live in a world and time where the Four Karmas - in their raw, uninspected forms - are spinning wildly out of control. Despite the best efforts by the wise among us, we collectively put up walls to understanding our state of affairs. Then, when our karmic effects congeal into conditions of the “here and now,” we come to reap what we have sown. The confusion and suffering of these times is the direct result of unwisely-applied karmas created by our confused collective ideals, words and deeds.

Thinking back to the mandala, and its fusion of personal qualities, neuroses and their enlightened antidotes, the Four Karmas activate the process of transformation according to the character and needs of the person. Anger becomes transmuted into pacified self-awareness; pride into selfless generosity; desire into actively seeking knowledge; and ruinous jealousy into altruistic accomplishment.

But if today’s individuals are poorly-equipped to wield the Four Karmas enlighteningly, what can be said of groups of such people who now captain our ships of state? Are their hazy ideals and unreflected-upon methods somehow rectified by the corporate/nation state model? Or will the power of their ignorance continue to fuel mass confusion and suffering, as seems to be the case in our present world?

If the latter circumstance is closer to reality, as it surely is, then what can be done about it? If it takes a buddha to know what to do, how can we possibly succeed while wielding our weaponry and words in daily living?

Mired here in ignorance’s karmic muck, in our unsustainable and unsustaining state of affairs, there is a special opportunity at hand to do something about it. And the Four Karmas are available, under the guidance of Wisdom and Compassion, to empower this transformation.

From the Buddhist standpoint, we need now to evoke three things in the process: Compassion - a warming of heart toward the earth and its beings; Wisdom - knowing the big picture of existence to be a living mandala, in all its glorious and terrifying beauty; and, Enlightened Karmic Actions - generating the intention and activity for Wisdom and Compassion to arise, without and within.

“See all beings as buddha;
Hear all sound as mantra;
Know all reality as mandala”
- traditional tantric prescription in living -

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Cleansing of America

When the Great Spirit created us,

he also gave us instructions or laws to live by.
We promised to live by his laws so that we would remain peaceful,
using them as a guideline for living happily upon that land
where he created and placed us.
But from the beginning he warned us that
we must not be tempted by certain things
by which we might lose this perfect way of life.
- Dan Katchongva, Hopi Sun Clan -

Americans and their land are undergoing a deep and involuntary self-cleansing. Such is the way of rebalancing in any ailing natural system. Human societies and their environs are equally natural systems and thus subject to the laws of life, which are heeded still by Native peoples worldwide.

Hopi Indian traditionalists have long predicted an inexorable macro-shift into a restorative period of natural cleansing. They base their conclusions on the recurrent cycles of human history and upon natural signs – omens – to the advent of what Hopi teachings call the Purification.

Indicators from their oral histories suggest that this deep healing of land and people will occur in our current era. Our breakdown in social cohesion, lack of empathetic awareness and despoilation of the environment have been expected by them as prophecy, part of the process of imminent “emergence” into an new and fresh Fifth World.

While this prognosis might seem to be a welcome idea, Hopi knowledge holders do not take it lightly. It is understood to be a powerful kind of purification based on the disintegration of the current way of life and its perspective on the world. For the Hopi, attaining the fresh Fifth World likely means undergoing a painful and mandatory cleansing of the present fourth way of existence.*

This process is well known to the original peoples of this hemisphere, including the Hopi and their neighbors the Navajo. They preserve in their respective histories essential lessons from their pasts, telling of the cycles and trials of previous worlds and how to be responsibly engaged in the dance of equilibrium among land, life and humanity.

They know implicitly from the histories that humans are not above this world. The treasured narratives handed down by their ancestors describe a beholding of reality that is essential to their very survival. No wonder that these form the fundamental template, still, of how to interact with one another and in the world.

Living as I do among the congenial and eminently practical Navajo people, I sometimes think about the dramatic narratives from their origination teachings, the Diné Bahané. These meaning-filled Navajo reality lessons begin in the oldest days of world creation and pass into recent eras. And, they continue onward into implied future human conditions.

They tell of periods of happiness and calm, and of times which sorely tried people’s lives. In these oral narratives there is beauty and balance, and there is death and suffering. But a vital subtext is present through them all. It speaks of how to maintain the cherished goal of life and thought, the state of equipoise without and within, which the Navajo call Beauty or Hozho.

For the Navajo, Beauty is a wonderful ideal requiring lifelong attention in maintaining it. But it is not an easy path to tread. The Navajo poet Nia Francisco once remarked that “life is a whirling with many unexpected events.” The sources and forces of disintegration in life are frighteningly real. But we can ameliorate them through our outlook and intent.

The respected Navajo medicineman, Old Man Buffalo Grass, told anthropologist Aileen O’Brien in 1928: “you look at me, and you see only an ugly old man, but within I am filled with great beauty.” This statement sums up the purpose and responsibility of Navajo life: to attain a contented old age, constantly imbued with the blessings of Beauty. But the goal requires strength of motivation to attain it. As such, Navajos are often heard to remark on the conduct of life, that “it’s up to you.”

Native American, Asian and Oceanic lifeway traditions generally aspire to synchrony with the way of the universe, leading to harmony within while not trying to control it without. Since it’s not easy to attain equipoise amid life’s many challenges, getting there requires systematic help through a conscious practice in living.

In these cultures, there are numerous “ways” through which one can participate in the practice of beautiful living. Navajo call theirs the Beauty Way. Through this process comes a daily cleansing and blessing of bodymind, then the refinement and resumption of one’s personal presence and relationship with the world.

American society is today collectively asleep to such age-old processes. We surge blindly ahead into an uncertain future, not wishing to see reality for what it is, no less in making it beautiful. But we have reached a point now where our way of life has finally become too toxic to collectively bear and deny. A national healing crisis is upon us and it is taking numerous forms, including economic woes, epidemic disease, antisocial behavior, personal dementia and the absence of an integrating and healthful communal vision.

It is time to accept that we are now in a collective (and individual) state of “dis-ease.” But disease can be healed. The remedy begins with reintegrating ourselves, re-membering whom we are by reflecting on the “whys,” as well as the “whats and the hows” of daily living.

The cleansing of America will take great effort and much good will. We will need to let go of the dark mental baggage of the seven deadly sins, and especially of the “I and thou, good and evil” cast of mind, which has “biblically” plagued us for so long. In seeking the beauty of balance in the world, we must come to realize in our very bones that our suffering – and that of others - is no longer an adequate state of affairs and that we must resolve to free ourselves of it.

Up to now, a great spell of sleepwalking has kept Americans away from a healthy quality of life and genuine peace of mind. It is time to make the communal leap from the darkened building into the greening light of heart, mind and conduct of life.

An Organic Renaissance awaits us amid this sorry state of being. It will sprout and flower once a critical mass of humanity resolves to make the journey into the fresh, Fifth World that beckons from the horizon.

The next move is ours:
the gates of the technocratic prison
will open automatically,
despite their rusty hinges,
as soon as we choose to walk out.
-Lewis Mumford-

…Therefore they think well of it,
they respect it very much.
And they love it very much,
since it directs their lives and enables them to live.
In this manner they tell about it.
…Therefore I believe it and it is sacred to me,
because through it things which happened far back in time became known.
-Frank Mitchell, Navajo medicineman -

*That the astrospiritual accounts of the classic Maya indicate the coming macro-shift occuring around the winter solstice of 2012, makes it all the more imperative to listen to what the Hopi have to say in this regard. Indeed, at least one Hopi clan reckons its origin to an ancient Mexican site called Red House. An aged Hopi priest told me in 1983, that they believe it to be Palenque, the great Mayan city in Chiapas, Mexico.

Monday, December 8, 2008

All Our Relations

The twenty first century reincarnation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has officially arrived. In the face of its social, political and economic challenges, we strive to be “brave,” but at times fall victim to collective hysteria and a lack of understanding. And while the world seems to be on the brink of significant change, the present condition in which we find ourselves turns out to be anything but “new.”

Our brave new dilemma has been enabled by close global linkages among peoples and environments, exceeding by many degrees what had already been a “small world.” Having personally been around since the close of the last planetary-wide, destructive interaction - the Second World War - I’ve seen the effects of the misuse of global interconnectivity. And I’ve witnessed the herculean efforts at restoring reasonability in life after its global trauma (which, for my parents’ generation, had followed the Great Depression – a main source of fuel for the fires of the war).

While there has been a long stretch of prosperity since then, it has been built on limited resources and borrowed time. Global debts of environmental degradation and population growth are now coming due with dark vigor. History is beginning to repeat itself, as it always does, as we find ourselves again on a self-destructive trajectory that is as old as civilization itself.

Ease of travel and wonders of communication may well define this [post]modern period, but their seeds were sown by European merchants, adventurers and missionaries during the Age of Exploration. Their era developed the tools and zeal for carrying out the first global imposition of cultural thought and behavior, based on a Euro-colonial model. Yet despite this mindset’s great material wealth and technical prowess, it could not fully manage to exploit the world in its first go-round.

It was left to others, most recently the United States of America, to continue the European colonial adventure into the present day. But today the old hegemonic model has ceased to be effective and a new strategy has been put in place to attain its goals. The urges of nation-states and empire builders required a retooling of their world picture and modes of action in order to more effectively consume the planet and its life forms.

Globalization of national economies and the exploitation of natural environments and peoples have become our main means of interacting on a world scale. But in ignoring factors from the last global financial meltdown during the 1930’s, we have found ourselves once more on a long drunken binge toward an epic socioeconomic hangover.

Seeds of Change

Even as we consume the world, we find ourselves in withdrawal from the false prosperity of national and global excesses. Fortunately, it is also a time when antidotes to our debauchery are resurfacing among the current generation of young (and once young) adults.

In response to the materialism and shallow values rampant after World War II, my baby boomer generation had focused on a “One World” collective consciousness. We committed ourselves to aiding the downtrodden at home and the “starving children in Asia.” We were passionately green; we grew up in awe of the values of Smokey the Bear after all. And we celebrated the peacemaking vision of the United Nations by vowing to act responsibly in the world while getting to know and respect the many ways and ideals of the “Family of Man.”

I fondly recall my early encounters with progressivism. I was sixteen years old and deeply into the global folk music revival and counterculture of the time when I sought out the inspiration of humanitarian thinkers, artists and activists. It was 1961 and only a few years beyond the nightmares of the Korean and Second World Wars. People were widely concerned over the uncontrolled urges of humanity and became proactive towards world peace, human understanding and personal growth. These imprints on my psyche have only grown deeper over the years, having been enhanced by subsequent studies among Tibetans, Native Americans and other peoples of balance.

This spiritual/humanitarian/indigenous amalgam has unveiled some potentially useful antidotes to the human condition. In it lies the inkling of a path out of our present dilemma, just the civilizational pattern of living simultaneously spins out of control in its crazy dance of globalization.

Is Civilization Civilized?

Universally, the human pattern of civilization has meant the exploitation and control of environmental and human resources. Ironically, it has succeeded beyond its wildest expectations in converting much of the world’s peoples to the utopian dream of material growth and infinite consumption. But in its successful search and consumption of natural commodities and human energy has come its failure. Despite the many profits wrenched from the earth and living things, contentment and well being are increasingly receding from our lives.

I began to comprehend the delusion of prosperity when I was studying economic anthropology in graduate school. I had the fortune (although I’m not sure whether it was good or bad) to take a course with one of the “big men” in the field. Through him I learned that there were two fundamental schools of economic theory in anthropology.

The prevailing economic model was that of the formalist school. It holds the same perspective behind today’s globalized, nation-state practices of trade and finance. Its “macro-economic” model interprets commerce as a dualistic endeavor, where the more clever and resourceful (and devious) the party in a transaction, the more likely are they to profit in the deal at the expense of their competitors. Transactions between parties, even in pre-industrial and indigenous societies, are assumed by this mindset to operate according to the same “maximization of profit” motive as do corporate businesses and nation-states.

I never understood how my professor could possibly conclude that a New Guinean native, a Burmese hill tribe person or a Native American farmer would ever operate under such a worldview. My several years of indigenous cultural experience before commencing graduate school screamed the opposite to be true.

However the professor did pay lip service to the other point of view. But to him, its more universal, “substantivist” perspective was a less valid method of economic analysis, despite its obvious resonance with indigenous ways of exchange. I suspect that he was bothered by the fact that it could not be easily quantified nor neatly explained by graphs and models. Perhaps, in the end, he could not break free from his own culture-bound notions to see the world through the eyes and lives of others.

Substantivists recognize that all kinds of non-measurable motives and variables necessarily impinge on peoples’ economic decisions. Matters of kinship and social responsibility must figure into the equation. For example, the giving of mandatory gifts from island to island in the Trobriands yields no direct return on one’s “investment” - except the likelihood of gifts of solidarity received down the line in a vast traditional ring of exchange. Likewise, there is the mass giveaway of incredibly valuable objects in elaborate potlatch ceremonies held by the socially elite in Pacific Northwest Indian communities of America and Canada. Ironically, this turns out to be a real example of our otherwise deluded notion of “trickle down” economics, because it actually does strengthen the commonweal.

These traditions certainly do not fit the ethos of modern capitalism. But to the substantivist they make complete sense, because social responsibilities must always coexist with fiscal benefits in real life economic activities.

The essence of this non-capitalist approach is a natural kind of reciprocity. The idea of maximizing one’s path to profit – to unbridled economic growth - is alien to most world cultures. While it may seem natural to the movers and shakers in nation-states and multinational corporations, I doubt whether anyone ever gains real contentment from playing the maximizing economic game.

The ecological economist, Herman E. Daly tacitly agrees with the indigenous model:

As long as our economic system is based
on chasing economic growth above all else,

we are heading for environmental, and economic, disaster.
To avoid this fate,

we must switch our focus from quantitative growth
to qualitative development,

and set strict limits on the rate at which
we consume the Earth's resources.

In such a "steady-state" economy,
the value of goods produced can still increase…

but the physical scale of our economy
must be kept at a level the planet is able to sustain.

Antidotes to Gluttony

The modern ideal of sustainability distinguishes world maintainers from world eaters, much as the substantivists stand in relation to the formalists in economic thought. Substantivist societies are by definition sustainers of their ecosystems and fellow peoples. One excellent example of this are the Navajo Indians, with whom I have lived for almost twelve years. They know themselves to be in responsible reciprocity and kinship with the myriad life forms of earth and sky. This understanding is much more akin to the substantivist view of economics than to unfettered profiteering on the substance and life force of humanity and world - the typical formalist viewpoint.

The two traditions that I know best, the Navajo and Tibetan, spell out the nature of responsible exchange and life sustenance quite clearly. Navajos call it k’e and the Tibetans, ley or karma.

Both terms relate to a perennial axiom in living: that we all – humans, animals, even spectral mind-body energies permeating the environment – are dynamically interconnected and inter-influencing of one another. The well known Lakota Indian benediction to the living web of relationship, mitakuye oyasin, “all my relations,” honors this fact.

K’e is a fundamental tenet of Navajo philosophy. It loosely translates as “responsible relationship.” K’e is often used to describe familial relations. But family is a much wider concept for the Navajo than it is for us. K’e describes relationship within the extended family, the greater clan, and with all other diné – “people” - including the two and four-legged earth-surface-walking people, the flying people, the swimming people, the slithering people, and the holy people (the gods). It is a web of relationship based on mutual respect and succor. And this relational web is a living, sacred thing. Chief Seattle voiced this ideal in his famous oration:

Man did not weave the web of life.
He is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web
he does to himself.

K’e is substantivist reciprocity in action, be it of a passive kind, such as through respect, or an active mode of mutual aid. For the Navajo it is an article of faith and a marker of proper harmony-in-living.

For Tibetans, ley-karma is organically connected with the goal of “right living.” One of the precepts of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, right living means conducting a fulfilling life by putting enlightened deeds (along with thoughts and words) into the world. To this end, the Dalai Lama has often observed that:

We must strive to achieve selfless compassion with others;
for we all have been each other’s mother in previous lifetimes.

This statement is based on the Buddhist understanding that our phenomenal world is composed of six major realms of life forms, each on their learning paths toward enlightenment. Indeed, we all, through the process of successive rebirths, have experienced each of these states on our multiple journeys from lifetime to lifetime. In fact, we all are related through the process of multiple reincarnations. Which is to say, we inevitably have manifested in previous lifetimes as each other’s mothers. So, just as we always wish the best for our own mother, we must cherish each other in this lifetime.

For Buddhists, a major factor determining the character of each lifetime is the impetus to one’s rebirth made by imprints left through one’s conduct in the previous life. Ley (or, karma, in Sanskrit) is the “law of cause and effect,” the Tibetan corollary to the Navajo k’e. It teaches that we all interact and influence one another along the strands of the Jeweled Net of Indra - the Asian version of the Web of Life. As our ideas, words and deeds bear karmic fruit, the fruit is only as sweet or sour as we have made it for ourselves and others. And by way of purified thoughts and good intent, we can potentially create a portfolio of the sweetest karmic fruit in each lifetime.

Holders of such worldviews look with sadness upon the needless ignorance and unhealthful ways of modern civilization. For theirs espouse cooperation, interconnection and compassion. Still, neither tradition is a “softy;” each meets antipathy and ignorance with incisive knowledge and powerful procedures. The spiritual warrior tradition of bravery in service of harmony is strong and necessary in Navajo and Tibetan life. And it provides a powerful lesson to nation-state hegemonists who would use warriorship solely in service of greed and anger.

“Civilization” – a concept snatched for its own by our modern way of life – is deeply in need of such natural wisdom and unconditional compassion working in tandem with expression and action. For they lead to the inescapable realization that we are all “our relations,” and are as responsible to one another as we are to ourselves.

As we seek to make our lives in this wonderful world, we necessarily engage in economic (and a host of other) relations. But we mustn’t forget that the way we deal with others will be the way others (and our mother planet) deal with us.

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be
only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
-John Ruskin-

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Two Theisms

Over half of the human beings alive today adhere to the curious religious creed of monotheism. Its “singular god“ vision - be it of the Judaic, Christian or Islamic taste - is an unusual and recent development in the timeless scheme of religiosity.

These Big 3 comprise the majority of today’s monotheistic creeds. However the world’s other major religions, along with countless indigenous and regional spiritual systems, are significantly different in character. They honor, instead, a web of myriad sacred beings, and have come to be known by the catch-all of polytheism.

While monotheism does have its tendencies toward the “mysticism of multiplicity,” it is usually hobbled in this quest. With the exception of the revelations of the rare Kabbalist, Christian mystic or Sufi, the Big 3 allow little room for direct communion with the infinite varieties of oneness in the universe, let alone curiosity about the infinite nature of our reality. They exclusively direct contemplation and prayer to the “one and only God,” Jahweh-Jehovah-Allah, and relegate the infinite varieties of life’s manifestation to being “God’s creations.”

From a marketing standpoint, the three monotheisms are masters at opinion brokering in in their sales pitch and promise. To envision the goal of a spiritual life as embodied in the powerful branded logo that is “God,” is an effective strategy. With unquestioning adherence to the God logo being mandatory for the true believer, the monotheisms have become potent means for amassing worldly power. However, they have fallen short in spiritual achievement.

Abiding beyond the realm of human experience and the natural order while exerting influence on every minute detail of life makes the monotheistic world creator an effective agent of mental and social control. So it is little wonder that the Big 3 monotheisms have effectively converted large populations in today’s nation-states and kingdoms. These types of heirarchic, sociopolitical structures are already in synchrony with the monotheistic model of central authority.

The continuance of the monotheistic creeds and cultural systems require an absent, all powerful and all knowing “great father model.” Patriarchic discipline together with more than a dollop of fear work wonders in keeping people to the prescribed path and away from pesky social innovations and natural ideals. The edict-enforced discipline of the Papacy; the persecutional fear of the Zionists, and the “God is great” zeal of the imams and ayatollahs utilize such methods of psychospiritual control.

Still, it is only human that spiritual and secular interests intersect on many planes in life. But where there is an all powerful, all knowing yet distant, creator god, the derived communal worldview becomes extractive and disconnected in character. It is extractive by its harnessing belief and devotion toward its own self-perpetuation and, by extension, in justifying the mining of the earth’s treasures and of the lifeforce energy its peoples. Such is considered permissible since Earth and humanity are believed to issue from and belong exclusively to the great father-creator god.

When human life and prosperity are bestowed by an abstracted and all powerful entity, adherents become disconnected from the natural urge to give and share. Where there is only one giver, people become “takers,” as the ex-Catholic monk Daniel Quinn so aptly termed unenlightened monotheists in his literary masterpiece, Ishmael.

When a holy writ that is honored by the Big 3 counsels to “spread thy seed over the earth and subdue the animals and plants,” people become less oriented to unconditional love and compassion toward the world and its life forms. Their worldview runs counter to the natural altruistic urge to give from the heart, which is to benefit anyone or anything as if they were a relatives or closest friends. This is because the bounty of the world is given solely to them by their god on high and is not acquired through the experience of responsible synergy with the web of life.

While the monotheisms do espouse love and empathy, their guiding scriptures are even more replete with sanctions and retributions meant as guides to proper thought and behavior. In this way, the monotheisms may well be useful for short term applications to the human condition, but they ultimately reinforce longterm problems through their slavish attention to a single personified Oneness. Their God acts on their behalf rather than empowers people toward applying good thoughts and deeds themselves.

Years ago, at a Buddhist initiation ceremony in India, the Dalai Lama got to the heart of the matter when he observed that, “there are two kinds of religion in this world: one having a creator god, and the other not recognizing a creator of this reality.” He was referring to the fundamental difference between the Western monotheistic religions and those such as Buddhism, Hinduism and indigenous systems.

The latter religions accept the universe as it is – as a timeless and formless sourceground out of which all matter, life and mind arise –without the need for a divine agent of causation. This turns out to be a much more sophisticated view of the sacred and profane, as it requires focused instrospection to understand the enormity of existence.

Non-monotheistic spiritual systems allow for and celebrate the multiplicity of sacredness embodied in the myriad forms and models of holiness that permeate earth and cosmos. Where there is an all-inclusive sense of relationship with a multiplicity of related, thinking and feeling beings, who are imbued with de facto holiness and sentience, there naturally arises an awareness and intent of compassion and caring.

Buddhism cautions about adherence to any form of worldly creator divinity. For Buddhists, the gods are not even immortal. Gods live in celestial paradises amid great splendor and enjoyments and they have exponentially longer lifespans than do humans. But unlike humans, the gods do not know of their own mortality until only a few days before they are set to die. This causes the gods great mental suffering as they stand on the brink of death and proceed into rebirth with an untutored and fearful state of mind.

Instead of holding to the dicta of a distant and fickle creator god, Buddhists celebrate the evolving enlightened mind and spiritual force of heart that are potential within each being in our phenomenal reality. And they do so in the knowledge that this reality is not all that is. Underpinning it is an indescribable sourceground of life force and mind, of which we humans, animals - all phenomena - are vital aspects and equal parts.

So, only in the sourceground of the One – in whatever way it may be envisioned - can the two types of religion ultimately find their common ground. Because, it is only at the creative font of things that true empathy and understanding, beyond the limitations of forms and concepts, can be fully realized.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
- Heart Sutra –

I came into unknowing and there I found myself.
- John of the Cross -

Current of the Times

Two Asian natural disasters recently have riveted the attention of the world. And one wonders whether the Sky Dragon’s storm vortex that leveled Burma's Irawaddy Delta and the massive stirrings of the Chinese Earth Dragon in Sichuan Province were not somehow connected on a level much deeper than geography and calendrical time alone.

The deadly cyclone and earthquake are symbolically linked in South and East Asia to a mythic power being known as the Great Naga. At its most benign, the Great Naga is a fiercely protective serpentine entity, embodying the powerful currents of the life force of earthly things, and of the forces of terrestrial waters and storm clouds.

Wherever and whenever the Great Naga slithers into view, it hints at an omnipotent undercurrent and powerful insinuation of something of massive import about to uncoil. It is a harbinger of momentous events and serves as an apt symbol for these unstable times in which we live.

The Great Naga is encountered everywhere in the eastern hemisphere. It gazes from finials atop Buddhist temples in farflung Tibetan valleys. It adorns the stairways and roofs of forest monasteries throughout Southeast Asia. A form of naga even appears to have journeyed across the Pacific Ocean to the western hemisphere during archaic times to become Tlaloc-Chac, the primal storm and water deity of the pre-Columbian Mexicans and Mayas. Its serpentine forms encrust stairways, rooftops and walls of stone edifices throughout Central America.

The serpent deity figures centrally in the cyclic movements at the root of the Mayan cosmo-creation narrative, signifying the transition of life into the coming Fifth World. This projection of future events is based on the cyclic patterns of the planets and stars as described in Mayan stone relief and codex writings, as well as in passages from the more recently composed Popul Vuh, their Book of Creation.

They all relate how the Maize God created the present Fourth World by raising the sacred corn tree in order to separate cosmos from earth at the proper moment in space and time. He then fashioned human beings out of corn and blood to dwell in it. For ancient Mayan astronomers, the creation of the Fourth World coincided with the center of the serpentine Milky Way coming into proper cosmic alignment. Though exceedingly rare in occurrence, this alignment will again appear in the night sky in but a few years’ time. Like a snake that is coiled around a tree branch, the cycles of time always return to their beginning, but at a point further along in the timeless flow of things. Their movement could be thought of as composing a sinuous spiral in the fabric of spacetime.

According to the Mayan Long Count system, a new macro-cycle will unfold on December 21, 2012. Then, the "White Boned Snake" (which is the Mayas’ name for the Milky Way - their path of life and death) will properly intersect the ecliptic (the pathway along which ride the sun, moon and stars through the sky), which is envisioned in Mayan art as a double-headed, “vision serpent.” Together they form the trunk and limbs of the Cosmic Maize Tree. Like the axis mundi tentpole of the ancient Siberians, the gods will raise the sky again by way of the cosmic tree, to reveal a canopy of stars, sun and moon above the unfolding Fifth World.

Such monumental cyclic changes are fully echoed in the other great computational system of the ancient world, that of Hindu-Buddhism. Its system of astrology and history measures its cycles in eons of time. It recognizes a range of natural cycles, from the personal to the universal, each going through a succession of existences. Its practitioners agree that we are on the verge of a major world cataclysm and rebirth into the fifth world reality in this cosmic eon. They call this challenging transitional crack between the worlds, the Kaliyuga.

Along with the convergence of these currents in time and space, there will likely come major upheavals in our daily lives. In fact the signs are already abundantly clear. Fortunately, the physical world will not end when this occurs, at least according to the ancient Mayan glyphs. What will end, however, will be the routine complacency of our lives. And here's one possible sign of this shift.

The year 2012 is being anxiously awaited by astrophysicists as well as Maya spiritualists. It will witness a maximal increase in sunspot activity, which is more powerful by half than any burst of solar energy to hit the Earth during the past 1000 years. The waves of solar wind may fry orbiting satellites and blow out power grids around the globe. And where daylight on Earth coincides with its flares, it is not impossible that they could do damage to computers, cellphones and digital networks – to the extent of paralyzing internet, economic and social services.

Some go so far as to hypothesize that this surge may fundamentally affect the very fabric of the planet. They speculate that a pole shift in the Earth’s magnetic core may be linked to the increased solar energy flow and thus to this anciently prophecized transition point in the life cycle of the world.

From my experience in their cultures, I would expect that if a Maya Indian sage and a Tibetan lama were asked to consider whether their macro-cycles of spacetime were somehow causally connected, they doubtlessly would come to full agreement on the subject. With the Great Naga and Tlaloc-Chac in their thoughts, as possible agents and emblems of this massive shift, they would agree implicitly with what William Shakespeare so eloquently expressed in a few prescient words:

What’s past is prologue.
- The Tempest -

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tibet: The Idea and Reality

For generations, James Hilton’s compelling novel Lost Horizon has fired us with tales of a distant paradise called Shangrila, situated we are told in a sylvan valley somewhere beyond the Himalayas in the vicinity of Tibet. The name Shangrila has become synonymous with all good and nurturing places, as well as symbolic of a long-lost state of being founded upon harmony with others and within oneself.

Tibetans, too, have a place like Shangrila in their dreams and meditations. They call it Shambhala. While most Tibetans had not yet attained its borders and state of being, they had managed to create a way of life in pre-conquest Tibet oriented to the ideals of a Shambhala.

Over thirteen centuries ago, the entire nation and ethnicity of Tibet had embarked upon a spiritually civilized path through life. In ensuing centuries, Tibetans had succeeded in seamlessly uniting the timeless earth religion of Inner Asia with later Buddhist teachings and practices geared toward the refinement of the bodymind into that of an enlightened being or buddha. It was a path of living that kept their feet firmly planted on the earth while their spirits were enabled to soar to infinite heights.

Fortunately for them, Tibet’s mountain fastnesses, arduous long distances between settlements and daunting weather proved to be excellent insulation from outside political machinations and threats of conquest. Their natural solitude enabled Tibetans to preserve the best of humanity’s teachings on the conduct of life for future generations. Tibet , in fact, is now the last in a venerable lineage of ancient civilizations such as were Sumer, Egypt, Greece, India and China - all of which are now either ghosts or shadows of their former selves.

Tibetan civilization arose over thirteen centuries ago and came ever so close the same fate as its ancient siblings over the past half century. Tibet had been rudely dragged from its blissful complacency into the harsh light of the “real world” of A.D. 1950 with the invasion of eastern Tibet.

It was a time when consequential changes were fulminating throughout Asia. Mao Tse Tung and his People’s Liberation Army had established yet another dynasty in China. Their 1949 revolution had issued out of the historical tides and social dynamics of Chinese life. But what may have been natural and inevitable for the Han was in no way natural or acceptable to the non-Chinese cultures living since time immemorial along their common border. And within a year of the end of the revolution in China, arose the old hegemonous chant that had served previous dynasties in their conquest of Mongolians, Manchurians, Muslims of Turkestan and Tibeto-Burmans of Yunnan. “Tibet has always been a part of China,” it asserted and reasserted.

This paen has a familiar ring to Americans. We remember the nineteenth century hegemenous exhortation: “go west, young man.” And, indeed, the settlers went west to the “empty frontier” by the tens of thousands, despite the slight complication that Native Americans were already living in this, their Shangrila.

Within a short time the Wild West had been “opened” and many Indian nations had gone the way of the wild buffalo, with hardly a voice raised in their defense. Similarly, with today’s massive influx of Chinese settlers, Tibetans stand to go the way of the wild yak in their own homeland: very much considered by the rulers in Beijing to be China’s Wild West. But this time, voices are being raised in Tibet and worldwide.

We, in the Far West, have often romanticized, indeed pedestalized the Tibetans. And they often take great pains to remind us that they are merely human beings, exactly like ourselves. Still, much praise is justly due them.

Tibetans had developed an all-encompassing and universal philosophy of living - we call it Tibetan Buddhism - which is now recognized as one of the great achievements of the human spirit. People in every industrialized nation have begun to incorporate its ethical, psychophysical and intellectual teachings and practices into their daily lives, thanks - ironically - to the Chinese-imposed diaspora of the Tibetan people.

As a last living link to the perennial philosophy of life, Tibet is the concerned teacher on the last day of classes, cautioning the students to “learn the lesson now or you never will.” Today’s most pressing goal in fact lies in learning the lesson well, through embodying humanity’s fundamental wisdoms-in-living. In a world mired in competition, divisiveness, greed and ignorance of our basic, shared humanity, we are being pulled ever more deeply into the maelstrom of global conflict and personal disequilibrium. It has become increasingly obvious that no infusion of money, technology, military aid or political ideology can snatch us from this downward spiral’s grasp.

To change the course of things requires a sea change in the realm of heart and mind; Tibetans call it compassion and wisdom. We need this whole force to establish within ourselves and with our local and global neighbors a holistic, spiritual state of being exemplified by our respective versions of Shangrila. It’s a fragile state, given its presence in the hearts and minds of a current minority of human beings. Still, only a single seed is needed for a forest to grow...

Tibet is one of the world’s last good seeds of civilization. And now, during their time of intense struggle for cultural survival, the people of Tibet deserve our full support, both as a matter of human rights and because of the precious but fragile idea and reality which are Tibet.

As goes Tibet, so goes the world.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Shape of Things to Come

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Fate of the World

On September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed the long-awaited Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, it has been hailed as a landmark step in global responsibility and in justifiable redress of longstanding wrongs perpetrated upon hundreds of millions of living people and their ancestors. And it augurs well for a new (yet perennial) way of reckoning the behavior of human society in this age of global interconnection, climate change and environmental degradation.

Significant in the voting were the "no" votes by the four main anglophone children-nations of imperial Britain: the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What motivated them to vote no? Mere collusion? Or, perhaps something more pervasive and pernicious was at play through their being locked into an unnatural system of conflict resolution built upon the indirect and imperfect devices of "the law?" Their excuses for voting no had been based, in each case, on vague legalistic premises. Or has Bush's stormtrooper mentality sufficiently pervaded the halls of government of America's fellow anglophonic nation states through their common tongue and shared colonial histories, to set them onto such a path of fearful global regression?

Other dynamics were also at play among the Anglo Four. New Zealand, Australia and Canada, for example, are resistant to more national land being claimed by its indigenous peoples, while in the USA, the resources (read: coal, natural gas and uranium) of indigenous lands are being increasingly coveted by energy companies.

Not surprisingly, Russia also rejected the declaration (through the more passive strategy of abstaining from voting), given its huge indigenous populations and aggressive resource exploitation in their lands - a trait which it has in common with the USA, Australia and Canada.

Among the other nations that abstained from voting, Nigeria could well be included in this mentality (indigenous people are seen there as impediments to oil extraction in the Niger Delta, for example). Other abstentions, such as those of Samoa (an indigenous nation state after all) and the Georgian Republic, can be explained by their close ties and committments to the USA. Bhutan, which also abstained, is a monarchy having many indigenous Himalayan peoples. But monarchies, however well intentioned, are not necessarily prone to indigenous rights.

But there is even more at stake here than initially meets the eye. This declaration is the first and only universal statement on the matter having any strength (despite being termed solely an "aspirational" document). And in that regard it is seen as a threat to the very foundation underpinning the nation state system of human governance.

The rise of the nation state system was coterminous with the rise of global exploration and colonial settlement, which in turn severely damaged the world's indigenous peoples. As nation states arose, indigenous states, tribes, clans and bands went into steep decline. And as nation states spread their influence globally, indigenous lands and labor were exploited wholesale while death rates rose exponentially through foreign dominance of their homelands.

That the United Nations would pass such a declaration is a monumental shift in the relationship between the indigenous idea of society and polity - call it the perennial human system of communal existence in harmonious synchrony with a bioregion or watershed - and that of the indirect, heirarchic, trans-bioregional and extractive/exploitative system of governance and settlement, which is characteristic of the nation-state. Thus counted among the no-voters and two abstainers (Russia and Nigeria) are some of the world's most aggressively extractive nations.

Interestingly, other exploitative nation states such as Great Britain, China and Brazil had voted in favor of the declaration, probably reflecting internal socio-political dynamics. These deal less with a change of heart than domestic or international expediency including, new leadership in Britain, rising awareness in human and environmental rights in Brazil, and political considerations regarding alliances with "third world nations" by China as well as its competition with the USA and its sphere of nations.

But even more to the point, this declaration is the first recognition, after over 500 years of one way dominance, of the justifiable rights and bonafides of indigenous ways of existence. And it signals the return to a semblance of sanity in regard to reasonable intercultural relations and to the possibility of healthy diversity in human social, economic and political ways of being.

While this vote is a sad commentary on several descendant nations of Imperial Rome and their fellow travelers, it is a hopeful first step in restoring human balance in and with the world.

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on
-- have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains?
Nature remains.
-Walt Whitman-

UN Document